Build a system

Increasingly, my work philosophy could be summed up as “Build a strong system, then design within that system (while knowing when to carefully break out of it).” A year ago, when I first started seriously thinking of expanding, I realized I’d need to take the approach toward my creative work and apply it to my business work. My studio had grown to the point that my previously ad hoc way of managing projects and tracking workflow was breaking down. I was forgetting whom to bill and when. I was letting long-term projects slip off my radar. I needed to build a better system to work within.

In the next post, I’ll share the nuts and bolts of that system; how a small creative shop can use tools built into macOS and Dropbox to manage workflow and keep everyone on the same page. But, first, I’ll focus on the importance of looking creatively at the non-creative areas of my job.

In response to the success of the promo boxes we sent out last month, we’ve been opening a lot of projects with more and new clients. The creative rush of figuring out how to get a project off the ground is one of the most fun parts of the job. The challenge, though, is not letting the housekeeping elements of starting a new job temper that excitement. Here are my four keys to keeping creativity up, even if the business tasks at hand aren’t terribly inspiring.

1. Start creative. This means momentarily setting aside creative briefs or memos of instructions from clients and instead meeting with them, ideally face-to-face, more ideally over coffee or a beer. Ben and I are able to use our backgrounds in journalism to casually interview clients to more directly get to the heart of the design problems they want solved. It’s more stimulating and efficient to hear it from the horses’ mouth than filtered through an art director, third-party or emailed outline. I’ve never been inspired by a creative brief, but I’m rarely uninspired by the people I meet with to talk through a job.

2. Gamify. I don’t use Quickbooks, though I’m meticulous with tracking expenses and revenue. Instead, I’ve built a series of bespoke accounting spreadsheets that took a lot of mental energy and creativity to make. Bookkeeping is a tedious necessity, yes, but I take some pride in (and get a series of tiny little dopamine buzzes) plugging data into my own system and watching it work. It’s efficient (because of some planning and hard work to build the sheets), and it’s mine. Similarly, I’ve created a project workflow that rewards me for making progress on a job rather than feeling like an endless list of boxes to tick off.

3. Interval focus. Similar to point 2, I try to factor little mental rewards into my more quotidian daily tasks. I use a purely analog note-taking and to-do list system somewhat similar to the Bullet Journal and highly influenced by Michael Bierut‘s composition notebooks. Each Sunday night, I make a list of the tasks I need to (or would like to) get done that week, and mark most of them with which day of the week would be best. Each morning, I refine the daily list (often times ignoring the day assigned Sunday night), and ballpark a time of the day I’d like to finish each task. Then I knock them off one at a time, usually in 30- or 60-minute intervals. I try to avoid checking email or Slack during those intervals of focus (though I don’t always succeed). I find the mini time goals act like a little race against myself. Now, to be clear, I almost never actually complete my daily (or weekly) task lists on time, but perfection isn’t the goal. Focus is. The lists also sometimes lead to crippling cases of what I call Trellophobia, or the fear of even looking at one’s to-do list, much less tackling a task from it. But taking ownership of the system rather than letting an app tell me what to do when with an endless series of boxes to check off has been rewarding and productive.

4. Compartmentalize. I do all of my billing at once, on the first of the month. It’s a chore, and usually takes half a day (or a full day if I’m also doing my quarterly books), but I feel more sure about accuracy and am more efficient when I pick out a couple albums to spin and grind through it all in one sitting. I’ve also tried to introduce a level of creativity (and marketing value) to our invoices by highlighting our recent work done for other clients. Similarly, this week, I have three responses to RFPs going out. While I’ve been mulling them over when I’m driving or waiting in line at the bank, I’ll focus on getting them all out the door at the same time.

In my next post, I’ll break down, in detail, the project workflow system I’ve hacked together, why it works for us as a two-person shop and how it can scale to a larger operation if and when we grow.

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